Conspiración iguana1 offers a kind of dystopian fiction that foresaw, at the time of its publication, a number of elements that are now observable in current society. It was the third novel published by Pilar Quintana, and it contains themes and forms that are further built upon in the rest of the author’s work.
Lucía Abondano is a famous journalist known for her article “La llaga de la salud,” an exposé of the dark dealings of a corrupt network of doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Lucía’s career is faltering: she hasn’t produced any high-impact reporting in a while and is stuck writing cheerful articles for the magazine where she works. Lucía has a feeling that her next big story will be a takedown of self-help guru Julio Armando Valdetierra (JAV), who has built an empire including conferences, business and personal coaching services, and the housing complex where Lucía herself lives. The JAV complex is, in essence, a walled city of wellness inhabited by thousands of yuppies who work for multinational corporations. Lucía suspects that Valdetierra is a phony and that his success stems from a corporate scheme to sell a version of his image and products tailored to each individual consumer living in the complex.
This universe is a snapshot of a reality that, as dystopian as it seems, is more and more similar to the one we’re living in. The parallels are evident in the details, some of which are common occurrences in dystopian fiction, such as the dubious charismatic leader, the walled city, omnipresent security cameras, simulated scenes of people living happily that play on a loop on screens around the JAV complex, etc. Others are more unique to the novel and situate the action at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a time period in which some of the precursors to today’s social control mechanisms appear: antistress bracelets that change color depending on one’s mood, coaching conferences and self-help books at every turn, the use of hallucinogens for recreation, rituals, and to increase productivity, etc. In the details of her fictional universe, Quintana foresees the challenges we face in the present, including the opioid crisis, environmental catastrophe, and systematic control over our bodies.
There is an additional element that appears in Conspiración iguana and recurs in much of Quintana’s work: the jungle. Here it functions as a nostalgic gimmick and, potentially, the place where a secret rebellion against the JAV complex is being plotted. This is how Lucía sees it, how she wants to see it, and this view is transmitted to the reader. Pío Cuevas has planted the jungle on the rooftop of the complex, assisted by a specialist from New York and with help from the Waunaa, an indigenous community from Bajo San Juan. Pío also forms an exclusive group, the “iguana club,” that gathers regularly in his cabin in the jungle to drink ayahuasca. At first, Pío strikes Lucía as charismatic and mysterious, and she assumes he’s one of the leaders of the rebellion; but as she gets deeper into her investigation of the group and Valdetierra’s real identity, Pío becomes a voice in her head and a constant, eerie presence. Lucía can’t discern if she’s experiencing a type of spectral communication unlocked by the ayahuasca and marijuana, or a delusion that she willed into being.
We have, it seems, all the elements of a plot for rebellion: doubts about Valdetierra, the apparent conspiratorial nature of the “iguana club,” the jungle as an exotic setting that lends itself to rituals and insurrection, a heroine who’s willing to do anything it takes, and cracks in the pervasive surveillance system that Lucía and her new friends seem to have identified. But the revolution never happens. Lucia’s investigation has uncovered Valdetierra’s true identity and led to a source who’s willing to go on record about how JAV products are a scam, but both the source and Pío (whom Lucía has kept abreast of her discoveries) betray her. In the end, Valdetierra anticipates Lucía’s claims and incorporates them into his new coaching conference, which is not only proof that he’s a charlatan but also proof of how quickly he can adapt to changing circumstances. When it comes to the “iguana club,” Lucía is surprised to find out that their only aspiration is to open up an underground bar for yuppies dissatisfied with the lack of results from Valdetierra’s products who want to experiment with other means and substances:
“JAV works for most people,” Pío continued. “But not for everyone. And it’s those people, people like you, for example, who come here for the ayahuasca and go to the iguana club to drink and get high. You see, Lucía, I fill the void left by JAV, and that’s why the system needs us both.” (313)
Co-opted by the system, the narrative arc sustained by the initial mystery and the idea of a plot for rebellion falls apart just pages before the end of the novel. In an ending that’s anticlimactic for readers expecting a revolution or the fall of the heroine, Lucía gives up. This state of resignation is, in fact, another component of Quintana’s portrait of present-day reality. Lucía is not the epic or tragic heroine who stands up to a dystopian regime, as much as she (and the reader?) would like her to be. Nor does a sudden eruption of absurd events frustrate her endeavors. Instead, the capacity of the status quo to adapt, absorb the forces that try to challenge it, and even turn a profit afterward, is confirmed. In this way, Conspiración iguana reminds us that the concept of revolution, its symbols, and its stories have been co-opted and often sold as souvenirs. It shows us that a state of resignation is the prevailing attitude of our dystopian present: faced with life’s increasing instability and surveillance so pervasive that it’s impossible to rebel against it, the characters resign themselves to accepting a simulated version of happiness that society has formulated in antistress laboratories, whether through be narcotics-induced numbness or a nostalgic return to nature via an artificial rooftop jungle.
The novel is not simply a portrait of a dystopian society that comes a little too close for comfort. Once the plot twist unfolds, the prevailing order remains intact and its former detractors become devotees. Their decision to assimilate comes as no surprise when one observes how the characters relate ethically and politically to other people within the JAV complex and outside it, in the broader city. The same racism and classism of contemporary capitalist societies are manifested in the society depicted in Conspiración iguana. The novel doesn’t appear to be interested in constructing a politically correct representation of the upper class or its protagonist, even though Lucía questions the system at times. The walled city is inhabited by yuppies while the working classes live outside its gates in poor neighborhoods; some of the suspicions surrounding Valdetierra have to do with his lower class origins and bootstrapping entrepreneur image. On the other hand, the role of the indigenous Waunaa people is limited to their experience with the jungle, ayahuasca ceremonies, and little else. In the context of this social order, Lucía’s critique of the system and her subversive tendencies seem to be nothing but hot air when we witness how she talks about characters who don’t share her social class, race, or language. A few examples of this follow; in the first, she describes an indigenous person in charge of the ayahuasca:
A man emerged slowly from one of the hammocks. He was indigenous and small-framed, but he was mature and imposing. His ears were perforated with large rectangular holes, and he had a bone-chilling gaze that cut right through you. I couldn’t penetrate his cloudy eyes with my own gaze. Without taking his eyes off me, he said something I didn’t understand, and it scared me. He was like a demon. (42)
In the second, Lucía describes her marijuana dealer’s wife:
A massive woman opened the door. She had bulging, light-colored eyes, a flat nose, a big mouth, and frizzy blonde hair. Her arms were covered in tattoos and stretch marks. She had the boobs of a prehistoric goddess of fertility, and a loose muumuu in loud colors enveloped the rest of her abundant flesh. She was like a big black woman trapped in white skin. (87)
In contrast to these passages, we find moments when Lucía identifies with and has empathy for the yuppies, whom she always observes from a distance: “I could see the yuppies through the elevators’ wall-to-wall glass. They were crowded together, staring blankly into the distance. They were like cattle headed for the slaughter, and I felt a sense of despair for myself and for them” (110).
These descriptions are reproduced over and over again in the novel with no shift in perspective: poor, indigenous, or Afro-descendant people are ridiculous, dirty, grotesque, or exotic. If Lucía identifies more with the yuppies, and if her relationship with anyone outside her immediate social circle is shaped by classism and racism, what real benefit would it bring to destroy a place that lends her a certain status, what with her journalism career on the decline? The potential for insurgency that Lucía and her friends might have had is lost when faced with the relationships they have with each other and those on the outside. The combination of their lack of a capacity for dissent and their urge to preserve their own privilege leads the characters to a state of resignation.
Added to this is the allegorical nature of the names of different places within the JAV complex, which soon becomes clear to the reader as well as the characters in the book (even though they never question their nonchalant way of referring to these places): “I walked south, down the hall of productive thoughts. The business center was open but empty. I ended up at the relaxation sanctuary” (111). There is a proliferation of spaces such as “the bike path of success,” “the hall of winning personalities,” and “the hall of positive attitudes,” among others. Like the explanations that dispel the novel’s initial mystery, the allegorical potential of these names, though clearly ironic at the beginning, erodes as they are repeated over and over.
It would seem that the allegory of these place names reflects the characters’ inability to examine themselves and end up anywhere other than a state of resignation vis-à-vis the prevailing order. The other side of this coin is that Conspiración iguana demonstrates with startling clarity the fundamental role that language and form play in subverting the regime. If the language used to name and narrate the other is not transformed in a way that acknowledges their complexity, if a world different than the current one can’t be imagined, any insurgent energy is quickly converted into fuel for upholding the status quo.